Monday, April 30, 2012

Travelin' Light: JJ Cale

JJ Cale

The roads into new music are sometimes improbable and unexpected.

In 1978, after a year in India, I took up residence in a rooming house in Dinkytown, that rather famous little neighborhood in Minneapolis, where Bob Dylan played his earliest public shows. The same day I moved in, the room across the hallway got a new resident too. He was an Iranian who’d recently arrived from the UK and his older brother asked me to make him feel welcome.  The thought of someone who shared a non-American perspective on life appealed to me and Navid and I hit it off. Over the next 12 years he and I had jobs together, fell out and came back together, shared our homes with each other, drove cabs for the same company and saw each other get married and have sons. 

The basis of our friendship centered on politics and music. It was the last days of the Shah when we met and I immediately became immersed in the fevered political discussions of Navid and his circle of Iranian friends. In our small smoke filled rooms I listened as they debated the pros and cons of Khomeini and the communists and the royalists. Interestingly, in all of those nights and weeks of conversations and arguments they never ever played any Iranian music. I learned nothing about Iranian singers or music.  All we listened to was rock n roll.

Navid sneered at my music collection. One of our first fights came right after he walked into my room and turned off my stereo as it was playing a Dan Fogelberg record. I was incensed. “Who gave you the right?” I asked. “Who gave you the right to listen to shit?” he shot back.

All he could talk about was Genesis, Eric Clapton, Gordon Giltrap, Pink Floyd, Peter Gabriel and Jethro Tull. As a rule he ignored American music and preferred British rock ‘n’ roll. I resisted, more out of spite than anything else and tried to push the virtues of The Eagles.  Somehow we remained friends.

One day he brought an album into my room and excitedly put it on the turntable. It was the one I share tonight, Troubador by JJ Cale. Here, at last was something I could get into. The laid back guitar stylings and whispered vocals immediately hit a chord. I’d never heard anything like him and for once I didn’t mind when Navid played the record a second time. I loved Travelin’ Light, Navid, raved about Cherry. We had a hit on our hands and a certain trust was established. I was henceforth more open to his suggestions and eventually came to love Peter Gabriel and Gordon Giltrap and Camel. He never got Dan Fogelberg but JJ Cale proved to him that Americans could make good music even if their politicians supported a corrupt regime.

With his laid-back rootsy style, J.J. Cale is best known for writing "After Midnight" and "Cocaine," songs that Eric Clapton later made into hits. But Cale's influence wasn't only through songwriting -- his distinctly loping sense of rhythm and shuffling boogie became the blueprint for the adult-oriented roots rock of Clapton and Mark Knopfler, among others. Cale's refusal to vary the sound of his music over the course of his career caused some critics to label him as a one-trick pony, but he managed to build a dedicated cult following with his sporadically released recordings. 

Born in Oklahoma City but raised in Tulsa, OK, Cale played in a variety of rock & roll bands and Western swing groups as a teenager, including one outfit that also featured Leon Russell. In 1959, at the age of 21, he moved to Nashville, where he was hired by the Grand Ole Opry's touring company. After a few years, he returned to Tulsa, where he reunited with Russell and began playing local clubs. In 1964, Cale and Russell moved to Los Angeles with another local Oklahoma musician, Carl Radle. 

Shortly after he arrived in Los Angeles, Cale began playing with Delaney & Bonnie. He only played with the duo for a brief time, beginning a solo career in 1965. That year, he cut the first version of "After Midnight," which would become his most famous song. Around 1966, Cale formed the Leathercoated Minds with songwriter Roger Tillison. The group released a psychedelic album called A Trip Down Sunset Strip the same year. 

Deciding that he wouldn't be able to forge a career in Los Angeles, Cale returned to Tulsa in 1967. Upon his return, he set about playing local clubs. Within a year, he had recorded a set of demos. Radle obtained a copy of the demos and forwarded it to Denny Cordell, who was founding a record label called Shelter with Leon Russell. Shelter signed Cale in 1969. The following year, Eric Clapton recorded "After Midnight," taking it to the American Top 20 and thereby providing Cale with needed exposure and royalties. In December 1971, Cale released his debut album, Naturally, on Shelter Records; the album featured the Top 40 hit "Crazy Mama," as well as a re-recorded version of "After Midnight," which nearly reached the Top 40, and "Call Me the Breeze," which Lynyrd Skynyrd later covered. Cale followed Naturally with Really, which featured the minor hit "Lies," later that same year. 

Following the release of Really, J.J. Cale adopted a slow work schedule, releasing an album every other year or so. Okie, his third album, appeared in 1974. Two years later, he released Troubadour, which yielded "Hey Baby," his last minor hit, as well as the original version of "Cocaine," a song that Clapton would later cover. By this point, Cale had settled into a comfortable career as a cult artist and he rarely made any attempt to break into the mainstream.

So Navid, wherever you are, thanks for the introduction to this great album all those years ago.

            Track Listing:
            01 Hey Baby
02 Travelin' Light
03 You Got Something
04 Ride Me High
05 Hold On
06 Cocaine
07 I'm A Gypsy Man
08 The Woman That Got Away
09 Super Blue
10 Let Me Do It To You
11 Cherry
12 You Got Me On So Bad

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Sunday Night Special: Aaah! Africa

Here’s a mixtape of 2 hours, 22 tracks of music from Zimbabwe, Angola, Ghana, Mozambique, Cameroon, South Africa, Mali, Tanzania, Tunisia, Nigeria, Congo (both), Guinea, Sudan and Burkina Faso.

From oily American-esque guitar funk (ROB) to nothing but an acoustic guitar (Feliciano Gomes), from big bandstand brass, guitar and vocal teasing (Bembeya Jazz) to sophisticated Afro-euro pop (Manu Dibango), from the outer limits of somewhere (Sir Victor Uwaifo) to the juju wall of guitars and talking drums (Chief Commander Ebenezer Obey) and to many interesting points inbetween….all one can say is Aaah! Africa.

Hope you have a good week.

            Track Listing:
            01 Forgive Us All (ROB) GHANA
02 Iranm' iran (Sir Victor Uwifo and His Titibitis of Africa) NIGERIA
03 Nha Guine (Ze Manel) GUINEA BISSAU
04 Wakafrika (Manu Dibango) CAMEROON
05 Som D'Agosto (Paulo Flores) ANGOLA
06 Magumo (How Will It All End) [Oliver Mtukudzi) ZIMBABWE
07 Jamil al-sourah (Le beau visage) [Abdel Gadir Salim] SUDAN
08 Bedeltini Bahiri (Khalas) ALGERIA
09 Makombo Mibale (Bantous de la Capitale) REPUBLIC OF CONGO
11 Super Tentemba (Bembeya Jazz National) GUINEA
12 Pachange Maria (Os Bongos) ANGOLA
13 What God Has Joined Together (Chief Commander Ebenezer Obey and His Inter-Reformers Band) NIGERIA
14 Matsaire (Feliciano Gomes) MOZAMBIQUE
15 Toumast (Tinariwen) MALI
16 Sogodounou (Nahawa Doumbla) COTE D’ IVOIRE
17 The Lewinsky March (Rabih Abou-Khalil) LEBANON
18 Mpenzi Usemayo (Dar es Salaam Jazz Band) TANZANIA
19 Hamba Hamba Madala (The Los Angeles Orchestra) ZIMBABWE
20 Mangue K (Mangue Konde) BURKINA FASO
21 Ask the Rising Sun (Mariam Makeba) REPUBLIC OF SOUTH AFRICA
22 Werente Serigne (Orchestra Boabab) SENEGAL

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Township Royalty: Mahotella Queens

Mahotella Queens

In 1965, Rupert Bopape, one of South Africa's great black producers, assembled a group of young session musicians-most of them domestic workers from Pretoria- to form the Makhona Tsohle ("Jack of all Trades") Band. Kicking out township pop with the uplift of sax jive and the force of American r&b, the group's bassist Joseph Makwela and guitarist Marks Mankwane in particular forged the all-electric sound that would rock the townships for the next decade. Having produced mbaqanga's seminal vocal group the Dark City Sisters, Bopape took one of their guest male vocalists, Mahlathini, and teamed him with a new female chorus, the Mahotella Queens. Mbaqanga--meaning a homemade dumpling cooked in a hurry--then entered its golden age. The bass "groaner," Simon Nkabinde (1937-1999), earned the name Mahlathini, literally "bush on his head," a reference to his aloof, commanding presence, his link with rural traditions and his unbelievably loud, low voice. Rounded out by the sunny, gospel harmonies of the Mahotella Queens, and by their endlessly inventive dance steps, this supergroup became a sensation throughout southern Africa. The Mahotella Queens took an eight-year break to raise families.

In the early '80s though, three of the original Queens--Hilda Buthelezi, Nobesuthu Mbadu, and Mildred Mangxola--rejoined Mahlathini, and the revived group now kept busy recording and touring internationally through the 1990s. Following the deaths of Marks Mankwane (1998) and Mahlathini (1999), it seemed that an era had ended. But the Mahotella Queens emerged from their grief with new resolve, formed a new band with young musicians, and returned to the recording studio and the road.

This is music that somehow seems, for me at least, to epitomize South African pop. The guitar playing is fab and the harmonizing is out of this world! I wish I could see them dance.

I’m out to dinner tonight so will be too weary to make the Dog bark. So thanks to the good folks at Electric Jive for sharing this great album (circa early 1960s).

         Track Listing:
         01 Kuqale Bani
02 Dinaka
03 Sonny Boy
04 We Boy
05 Hamba Mzala
06 Izinyoni
07 Inxeba Lendoda
08 Elidlubedu
09 Niyi Gcine
10 Ikhula
11 Umoya
12 Amaqawe
13 Izulu Nge Lami
14 Ekuseni

Friday, April 27, 2012

Stellar Soundtracks: Jugnu

As far as years go, 1947 was a big one.  At least on the Indian Sub-continent.  After nearly two hundred years, the British Raj came to an end. In the words of Al Stewart in his song Post World War II Blues, “And Churchill said to Louis Mountbatten/ I just can’t stand to see you today/ How could you have gone and given India away?/ Mountbatten just frowned, said What can I say/Some of these things slip through your hands”

As Louis Lord and Lady Mountbatten packed up and headed home, millions of Indians hit the road too. The largest movement of people the world had seen and probably one of the most desperate. Muslims moved away from the towns, villages and cities of northern India to a new country in the west called Pakistan.  Hindus and Sikhs whose families had lived for centuries in Punjab, Sindh and the Frontier ran the bloody gauntlet towards a truncated India.  Horrible things happen in history. The Partition of India was one of them.

Nur Jehan

Five years earlier, a young Punjabi girl with a name, Nur Jehan (Light of the World) as beautiful as her voice (‘pure crystal’, according to one critic) had come to Bombay from Calcutta to try her hand in the movie business. By 1947 she had not merely succeeded. She’d triumphed. She’d conquered. Nur Jehan had acted in sixty nine movies and recorded 127 songs. She was the greatest singer/actress Indian cinema had ever produced and world knelt before her.

Dilip Kumar and Nur Jehan in Jugnu

In that year of upheaval, blood and bitterness Nur Jehan acted (and sang) across from a young rising male tragic-hero Dilip Kumar in a film titled Jugnu (Firefly). Filmfare Magazine the arbiter of all things cinematic in India panned it as ‘dirty, disgusting and vulgar’. In October 1948 Jugnu was officially banned for a few months, thanks to the moralizing of Filmfare, but has gone on to be considered a landmark film.  Though Filmfare also turned its nose up at Dilip Kumar’s performance (they swooned at Nur Jehan’s) it went on to make him a superstar and the soundtrack, which we share tonight, is a genuine classic.

Jugnu was to be Nur Jehan’s last film in India. She and her husband moved to Lahore where, unlike most other transplanted Indian Muslim musicians, she thrived and dominated the Pakistani music and film scene until her death in late 2000. 

The soundtrack of Jugnu is special for several other reasons too.  With Nur Jehan’s departure from the scene, the curtain that had been descending slowly on the actor-singer fell quickly and ushered in the golden era of the ‘playback’ singer.  One of the greatest of playback singers, who dominated the scene in the 1960s and 1970s, Mohammad Rafi, got his start in Jugnu. And the grand dame of classical singers, Roshan Ara Begum, also contributed a folky song to the film.  Quite a feat when one considers the scorn in which most classical musicians held filmi singers. Begum sahiba moved to Pakistan as well, soon after the film was made but unlike Nur Jehan found the transition to be a challenge.

A young Mohammad Rafi in Jugnu

Nur Jehan has been called the great ‘what if’ of Bollywood.  What if she hadn’t moved to Pakistan? Would Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle the two titans of Indian film music have emerged so strongly and figured so prominently?   Both of them still consider Nur Jehan to be the greatest of all time.

We’ll never know but enjoy this wonderful soundtrack from 1947, the year it all ended. Or began, depending on your perspective.  Nur Jehan, Roshanara Begum, Shamshad Begum and Mohammad Rafi…all together! 

            Track Listing:
            01 Umangain Dil Ki
02 Aaj Ki Raat
03 Lot Jawani Phir
04 Des Ki Pur Kaif
05 Tum bhi Bhula Do
06 Hamein to Sham-e-Gham
07 Woh Apni Yaad
08 Yehan Badla